Honouring guests a religious duty for Hindus

Last month, we had our water heater replaced. When the installers finished their work in the basement, I invited them to my kitchen and offered chai (Indian-style tea) and snacks. They were surprised. While sipping chai, one of them commented that they rarely experienced such hospitality from their customers. His comment reminded me of my first visit to a Canadian home, soon after I arrived here in 1968 as a new immigrant. My first encounter with Canadian hospitality was not so positive. It was a cultural shock to me.

I needed some used furniture to furnish my new home. One of my co-workers told me that her mother was selling a few items, and gave me her address in Scarborough. It was quite far away for me, as I had no car then. I had to change two buses and walked for more than half an hour in order to get to her address. It was a very hot summer day in July and by the time I got there, I was perspiring heavily, huffing and puffing like a tired old mule.

An elderly woman answered the door and let me in. She was very courteous and friendly, but she did not ask me to sit, nor did she offer me a glass of water. She took me straight to the basement to look at the furniture. We made a deal for a couple of pieces, and she walked me back to the front door. I was very thirsty, but too shy to ask for a glass of water. I was simply shocked by her behaviour, particularly when I was visiting her with her daughter’s reference.

I shared this experience with a friend from India who had come to Canada much earlier. He was not surprised at all. He explained that the definition of a guest was different in North America. I wasn’t this lady’s guest as I was just visiting her to make a business transaction. Since I was not an invited guest, I should not have expected the generous hospitality that I was so used to in India.

I come from a traditional, middle-class Hindu family. My parents were not very religious, but they followed Hindu customs and traditions, and the tradition of honouring a guest was strictly enforced. Anyone who came to our front door for whatever purpose, except beggars, was considered a guest and deserved our hospitality. Even a beggar was to be treated with respect. Any casual visitor would be invited in, offered a seat and a glass of water as a basic courtesy. My mother would severely reprimand any family member who violated this rule. If anyone was visiting at dinnertime, my parents asked him to join us.

While studying my religion, I discovered that extending hospitality with courtesy and respect to anyone who comes to your door is more than good social etiquette; it is a religious duty of a Hindu. “Treat your teacher, father, mother and guest as a Deva or deity,” declare the Vedas, the primary Hindu scriptures.

My father often repeated a famous Hindu poet’s line, “In your daily life, meet everyone with open arms and warmth. Who knows, some day, you might meet God in disguise.”

According to our scriptures, apart from the normal activities related to one’s occupation or business, a devout Hindu is enjoined to perform five daily duties:

1. Deva Yajna: Worship God and meditate on Him.

2. Brahma Yajna: Study scriptures (Vedas) to acquire spiritual knowledge.

3. Pitra Yajna: Contemplate the teachings of sages, saints and ancestors to preserve one’s cultural heritage.

3. Atithi (or Nara) Yajna: Reverence and hospitality to guests, invited or not.

4. Bhoota Yajna: Provide food for those who are in need, including all creatures.

Today, people of all religions in India are known for their warmth to guests, for Hindus who had embraced other religions perpetuated, knowingly or unknowingly, their ancestors’ tradition of honouring visitors to their homes. Mainstream Canadians visiting their Indo-Canadians friends are often overwhelmed by their generous hospitality.

Like their parents, the new generation of Indo-Canadians, born and raised in Canada, may also extend the same hospitality to their invited guests, but perhaps not to every casual visitor.

Article By: Aji Adhopia
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